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  • How contemporary fine art photography and photography as a

    study has kept theatrical Tableau Vivants threshold in its

    institutional space

    In this essay I want to discuss the notion of Tableau Vivant and define its

    different meanings. I will define Tableau Vivant as a threshold and its

    materialized form and In addition covering its initial origins from live theatre

    performances in auditoriums. I will also cover Tableaus Influence towards

    traditional painting and contemporary fine art photography. What if we were

    to consider the tableau not as an object, but as a threshold? (Newman 2008).

    This quotation establishes a main discussion point, which outlines an

    understanding towards the presence and meaning behind theatre and works

    of art influenced by Tableau; that of its occupational space as a beholder

    within an institution. To what I am proposing that theatrical Tableau as a

    threshold is always present in the institution. Another key discussion towards

    this is the effect of scale as an ideology.

    It is important to establish what Tableau means in conjunction with theatre

    and art. Its definition states, a group of people / actors arranged to represent

    scenes that are silent and motionless (Oxford 2013). Derived from theatre, in

    every form of Tableau there is indeed an ideal meaning, but there is no end

    meaning (Barthes 1977: 72). This motionless, unified moment serves as a

    purpose for critique to the beholder upon the performers.

    To analyze the theatre auditorium it is important to understand the spatial

    relationship between the stage and beholder. As we inherit the beholders

    perspective, the space occupied by the stage is transformed as a flat frontal

    plain, which inhabits clear borders in viewing and observation (Chevrier

    2008). Denis Diderot (18th century art critic) states that this observation is

    faithfully rendered by the painter, which would please the canvas (Diderot in

    Fried 2008). This quote suggests a movement towards a physical recording of

    the tableau; the physical recording places the tableau in the form of an


  • This physical recording comes from the decisive moment (also known as

    pregnant moment) (Burgin 1986: 115). This decision is felt in the live

    encounter of the play and the beholder experiences an aura from within to

    determine the decisive moment, which places the tableau as a threshold.

    Burgins decisive moment is also present in the work of photographer James

    Coleman. His work particularly looks at vantage points in which the

    performers perspective or the

    beholders perspective is

    viewed. The photographic work

    in discussion here is titled Living

    Presumed Dead [Figure 1]. It

    comprises of photographic stills,

    which are incorporated within a

    slide projection. These

    photographic stills replicate the

    ideology from theatre of the

    ontology of the rectangular

    frame. Critically the photograph corresponds with the beholders perspective

    in the live institutional viewing experience of a theatrical Tableau. The multiple

    slides slowly show different tableaus being performed with an audio narrative

    tape being played in conjunction. Art historian Buchloh comments Colemans

    work deliberately situates itself in the discursive and institutional frameworks

    of visual culture (Buchloh 2003: 106). Coleman here has purposefully

    incorporated many aspects we experience within the live viewing of a

    performance into a contemporary exhibited installation piece.

    This installation is built as a makeshift institutional space that projects the

    slideshow in a darkened room that resembles a theatre auditorium. The

    projection imitates a concept theorized by Diderot of the invisible fourth wall

    derived from theatre; the fourth wall being where the audience is sitting

    (Brecht in Fisher in Baker 2003: 19). Is it the case then that Coleman has

    established a successful live rendition of a Tableau theatrically, or can it only

    exist as a reproduction to that Tableau photographically? Both options seem

    plausible. The important issue is that Coleman is transferring the beholders

    [Figure 1] James Coleman, Living Presumed Dead. 1983-1985

  • perspective of theatre into a different occupational, institutional space; that of

    the contemporary gallery space. As this invisible fourth wall has now been

    placed on an actual wall, it has successfully rendered the threshold of the

    theatrical tableau in a materialized photographic form.

    In traditional paintings of the 19th century, Tableau took form in dramatizing

    that singular decisive moment and materializing it onto a canvas. A visible

    frame to that of the theatrical invisible frame is now present. This visible frame

    derived from the fourth wall thus acts as the paintings canvass, therefore

    framed and is compacted to inherit the theatrical Tableau.

    This framing can be found in the series of photographic work created by

    Thomas Struth entitled Museum

    Photographs. [Figure 2] entitled

    Louvre 4 is a photograph taken

    inside the Louvre museum, which

    depicts the act of viewing. The

    painting in view is titled The Raft of

    the Medusa painted by Theodore

    Gericault. It is inspired by tableau

    as it sets a scene that is motionless

    and that does not interact with the


    Art critic Michael Fried talks about this work extensively and suggests there is

    a dialogue between two media painting and photography (Fried 2008:

    127). The dialogue he refers to is the reappearance of the auditorium and the

    Tableaus threshold emerges. The observers of the photograph sit outside of

    the conventions of the museum; in an Ivory Tower as it were. It is thus that the

    awareness of the institutional space is depicted as the spectators are

    occupying it, viewing the painting. As a result the painting in the picture is a

    representation of the stage. Fried states, Every gaze out of the picture is

    directed toward a distant signal of rescue (Fried 2008: 117). This form of

    gaze directed away from the spectator is identical to the ethos held by stage

    [Figure 2] Thomas Struth, Louvre 4. 1989

  • performers in Tableau. The frame then is a kind of nave dam protecting the

    picture from the worlds impact (Borowski 1966: 47). This impact implies a

    meeting of the figurative gaze, which cannot form, as the tableau would not


    Therefore the space outside the frame is a representation of the audience.

    Struths photographs attempts to bring back a certain aura and threshold from

    the tableau to the observer; outside of the theatre auditorium and into the

    museum. However in Louvre 4 the observers are not part of this threshold,

    they only see it happening. Struths series Museum Photographs essentially

    acts as a photographic study towards an evidential realization of the tableau

    as a threshold existing in the museum.

    The paintings in Struths Museum photographs are large scaled and this is

    made aware by the spectators presence. The scale thus is crucial to the

    tableau as it is imitating the large fourth wall derived from theatre.

    Contemporary photographs presented as a tableau appropriate this large

    scale. Is therefore size elevating the photographic image to the place and

    rank of painting? (Chevrier in Finch 2013: 4). In correlation is photography

    then setting an ideology in scale to replicate theatrical Tableau? In its

    contemporary use yes; the cameras viewfinder, is the theatrical fourth wall

    embodied. Photography is

    said to also hold the tableau

    as a materialized object, but

    this as Jeff Wall states is

    comfortably rooted in the

    pictorial tradition of modern

    art (Wall 1995: 32).

    Jeff Walls photographic

    work has his own theories

    on the Tableau. Most of his

    work originates from

    literature, which could

    compare to narratives or scripts found in theatre. [Figure 3] entitled Invisible

    [Figure 3] Jeff Wall, After Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, the prologue. 1999 -


  • Man (shortened) bases the photograph on a concept all around the notion of

    absorption and that to the theatrical tableau. Michael Frieds Absorption and

    theatricality book mentions the Primacy of considerations of absorption

    (Fried 1980: 15). In this quotation Fried refers to a painting, but also applies

    profoundly to Walls Invisible man. The figure in shot corresponds to a

    character from Ralph Ellisons novel. The character presented reveals the

    invisible mans quiet absorption in his simple tasks (Fried 2008: 46). This

    absorption withdraws the character to the beholder and does not attempt to

    acknowledge the camera; much like the theatre performer. The passage of

    text Walls photograph is based on, describes a high amount of detail within

    the scene. Wall then takes it upon himself to construct a scene that mimics its

    literary vision. Therefore this action of construction can be seen as cinematic,

    which in cinemas essence is theatrical.

    Photographic work institutionalized forms theatrical Tableaus threshold. Jean-

    Francois Chevrier claims that photographic work made for the wall are termed

    as tableau form. He states the work must summon a confrontation

    experience on the part of the spectator (Chevrier [1989] in Fried 2008: 143).

    Scale thus provides this, as the beholder must step back to view the whole

    photograph. [Figure 4] shows this scale in its Gallery institution (archival

    image). The Invisible man when

    exhibited reaches measurements

    of 174 x 250.5 cm framed in a

    transparent light box. The choice of

    large scaling the photograph

    places Walls (Tableau form) work

    into the gallery space in which it

    adopts its place for its single

    purpose as fine art inside the

    institution. Fine art placed in museums and or galleries function as a place of

    preservation (Buren 1978: 189) as an original copy. As [figure 4] shows this

    contemporary gallery space still obtains the threshold of Tableau originated

    from the theatre auditorium. Walls photograph gains the tableau as a

    materialized form but because its sole purpose is that for the wall, as Wall

    [Figure 4] Jeff Wall. Exhibition. 2011

  • puts it Transforms the established photography as an institutionalized

    modernist form (Wall 1995: 32). Therefore the threshold of Tableau can

    never escape outside the institution.

    From the stage to museums to galleries, Tableau Vivants threshold on art

    has always emerged, but only concealed in its institution. Tableau as a

    material fine art form has left the constraints of institute, but only in showing

    others through reproduction that tableaus aura remains institutionalized.

    Simeon Meinema


    - BARTHES, Roland. 1977. Image Music Text: Diderot, Brecht, Eisenstein. London. Fontana Press. Pp. 69-78.

    - BOROWSKI, Wieslaw in ALBERRO, Alexander. 2009. Institutional Critique An Anthology Of Artists Writings. Cambridge. The MIT Press.

    - BRECHT, Bertolt in FISHER, Jean in BAKER, George. 2003. James Coleman. Cambridge. The MIT Press.

    - BUCHLOH, Benjamin in BAKER, George. 2003. James Coleman. Cambridge. The MIT Press.

    - BUREN, Daniel in HERTZ, Richard. 1993. Theories Of Contemporary Art. 2nd Edition. Upper Saddle River. Pearson Education.

    - BURGIN, Victor. 1986. The End Of Art Theory Criticism And Postmodernity: Diderot, Barthes, Vertigo. London. Macmillan Education

    LTD. Pp. 112-139.

    - CHEVRIER, Jean Francois in UALPaintClub. 2011. Jean Francois Chevrier: Inside The View. Tableau Form And Document I.

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    November 2013].

    - CHEVRIER, Jean Francois in FINCH, Mark in SMITH, Chris. 2013. Journal Of Visual Art Practice: The Tableau Project. Vol.12, No. 1, Pp.

    2-7. Bristol. Intellect LTD.

    - CHEVRIER, Jean Francois in FRIED, Michael. 2008. Why Photography Matters As Art As Never Before. Malaysia. Fourth Printing.

    - DIDEROT, Dennis in FRIED, Michael in UALPaintClub. 2011. Michael Fried: About The Tableau. [Accessed 23

    November 2013].

    - FRIED, Michael in UALPaintClub. 2011. Michael Fried: About The Tableau. [Accessed

    23 November 2013].

    - FRIED, Michael. 1980. Absorption And Theatricality Painting And Beholder In The Age Of Diderot: The Primacy Of Absorption. Berkeley.

    University Of California Press. Pp. 7-70

    - FRIED, Michael. 2008. Why Photography Matters As Art As Never Before: Jeff Wall and Absorption; Heidegger on Worldhood and

    Technology. Malaysia. Fourth Printing. Pp. 37-62 - FRIED, Michael. 2008. Why Photography Matters As Art As Never

    Before: Thomas Struths Museum Photographs. Malaysia. Fourth Printing. Pp. 115-142

    - FRIED, Michael. 2008. Why Photography Matters As Art As Never Before: Jean-Francois Chevrier on the "Tableau Form"; Thomas Ruff, Andreas Gursky, Luc Delahaye. Malaysia. Fourth Printing. Pp. 143-190

    - NEWMAN, Michael in UALPaintClub. 2012. Michael Newman: Tableau and Perversion II.

    [Accessed 24 November 2013].


    [Accessed 22 November 2013].

    - WALL, Jeff in FOGLE, Douglas. 2003. The Last Picture Show: Artists Using Photography 1960 1982: Marks Of Indifference Aspects Of

    Photography In, Or As, Conceptual Art. Minneapolis. Walker Art

    Centre. Pp. 32-44

    - FIGURE 1. COLEMAN, James. Living Presumed Dead. 1983-1985.


    - FIGURE 2. STRUTH, Thomas. Louvre 4. 1989.

    - FIGURE 3. WALL, Jeff. After Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, the prologue. 1999 2001.


    - FIGURE. 4. WALL, Jeff. Invisible Man the crooked path exhibition.